When Arcade Fire plays live, Will Butler is clearly visible as the guy in the corner jamming out on the keyboards or overzealously banging on a rack tom. But when listening to the band’s albums, it’s nigh impossible to pick out what musical bits he’s contributed. That’s not a shot at Will; Arcade Fire has so many members who constantly swap instruments that the only completely distinguishable musical personalities in the band are its singers, Will’s brother, Win, and his wife, Regine Chassagne.
Considering the songwriting chops Butler flashes on his solo debut, Policy, there’s no logical explanation as to why he’s never gotten to sing a single song with Arcade Fire—aside from Win’s ego, that is. And that’s a shame, because the band could use a dose of Policy’s intimacy, not to mention brevity (the album is only 28 minutes long). Indeed, even though Arcade Fire sometimes gets unfairly criticized for being pompous and overblown, it’s difficult to argue that an album like the intermittently terrific but bloated Reflektor couldn’t have done without some of its fat. And judging by Policy, Butler might just be the internal editor the band needs.
Butler announces his divergence from the Arcade Fire aesthetic about half a second into the album, with the opening two-chord guitar riff of “Take My Side.” It’s rawer than anything Arcade Fire has ever done, sounding like rowdy yet melodic Detroit garage rock, and more authentically so than could be expected from a guy who played on “My Body Is a Cage.” Sure, Will’s voice sounds an awful lot like a thinner, reedier version of his brother’s, but it’s unlikely Win will get this down and dirty anytime soon.
An album composed entirely of stripped-down garage rock would be a statement enough, but Butler steers away from stylistic uniformity. “Anna” is an ’80s electro-pop throwback with a debonair synth line, spot-on touches of sax and piano, and a quirky vocal that all favorably recall Talking Heads. Butler again switches gears with the convincingly mopey, Lennon-esque piano ballad “Finish What I Started” and the energetic “Son of God,” which features a bright and memorable gang-vocal chorus. The ability to generate consistent melodicism across such a broad range of styles is the mark of an adventurous songwriter who isn’t content to fall back on rote formula.
Unfortunately, other than the playful, doo-wop-influenced piano pounder “Witness,” Butler can’t keep up the surprises during the second half of the album, where he offers repeat efforts at most of the styles he delved into on the first half with somewhat more muddled results. “What I Want” doesn’t rock as hard as “Take My Side,” and while “Something’s Coming” features a funky bassline, its chanted refrain isn’t nearly as fun as Butler’s eccentric squeals on “Anna.” Maybe that means he isn’t destined for a particularly prolific solo career, but on Policy, he proves that he’s worth more than playing second or third fiddle.